United in hate: New Yorkers celebrate a victory in the war on terror in 2011. Photo: Timothy Fadek/Corbis.
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How the west was lost: Frank Furedi’s First World War

The Great War’s greatest legacy is uncertainty and a never-ending search for meaning.

First World War: Still No End in Sight
Frank Furedi
Bloomsbury, 288pp, £18.99

A century ago, the First World War tore apart western claims that peace and progress were the fruits of its civilisation. We are still suffering from the fallout of the loss of certainty and cultural self-belief that the war provoked. That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Frank Furedi’s provocative assessment of the current state of the west, as it struggles to find a set of agreed values, even a common vocabulary, to overcome the loss of ideology and the fragmentation of culture.

Although it is not Furedi’s main purpose, his argument also helps to explain the ambiguity behind current plans to mark the anniversary, which cannot be an uncontroversial celebration or commemoration, because it must confront awkward issues about pacifism and anti-war sentiment both at the time and since.

Ever since 1914, claims Furedi, the west has faced a “perpetual war in search of meaning”. The efforts to discover meaning, particularly the rise of ideologies that violently insisted on just one common set of values, proved self-defeating. Fascism and the far right were entirely deflated by the Second World War (though they are more alive in modern-day Europe and the US than Furedi realises); the communist enterprise fizzled out in 1989 when even the leadership realised that there was no value left in the parroted slogans of Leninism

What is striking, Furedi argues, is that even the more benign ideological movements of the past century, from Keynesianism to social democracy, have lost their power to inspire. Indeed, ever since the First World War the west has been drifting towards a position where culture wars cancel out any certainties and beliefs, and leave people cynically unprepared to accept anything at face value. For proof, he cites an American opinion poll that found at least a third of respondents willing to agree that 9/11 was the result of a government conspiracy.

Furedi examines the search for meaning across the whole 20th century. Wars, he argues, are an important way of cementing at least a temporary sense of meaning, since victory in the world wars and cold war was seen as an important end in itself. Wars can also give definite, if brief, endorsement of a nominally shared culture, whether that is the German pursuit of a new Germanic civilisation to protect its cultural values (perhaps the greatest irony of all for a state bent on genocide), or the vague Anglo-American pursuit of a fresh democratic start in 1945 after dropping millions of tons of bombs on the very peoples they hoped to liberate. The cold war was even more important as a source of proxy meaning, since it provided the west with an instant enemy and fuelled the assumption that anything the Soviet bloc did must by definition be the opposite of what the west stood for.

Furedi sees the attempt to find certainty in war, in the most violent of centuries, as simply a postponement of a wider crisis of meaning and identity for the west. Moreover, the current war on terror has shown the limits of the use of war as an instrument to summon up a shared cultural identity. The war on terror divides communities, provokes internal tensions and is not demonstrably about preserving “our way of life”, even if a common agreement could be found about what that is.

He highlights the efforts to find a language to mask the reality of this war by shifting the acronyms from Bush’s GWOT (global war on terrorism) to Obama’s OCO (overseas contingency operation). The war on terror paradoxically needs its own terror to function effectively, whether that is concentration camps at Guantanamo Bay or drone strikes on Pakistani villages. This is a war devoid of real meaning, a long war with no end in sight, mimicking the crisis that Furedi believes the First World War opened up a century ago.

The end of the real wars in 1989, with the collapse of communism, allowed the perennial culture wars of the west to take centre stage. In the absence of ideologies in their earlier 20th-century sense, the west has faced a crisis of self-belief and authority. Culture clashes expose the absence of any consensual agreement about the values that animate modern western societies, while the shift from a “way of life” to the current obsession with individual “lifestyles” is evidence, Furedi believes, of a flight from politics and old-fashioned civic culture. Belief in progress, economic individualism, the family, the virtues of the parliamentary system and the rational character of modern institutions might still be used occasionally as rhetoric by the political elite but people now see through it.

Furedi identifies a profound cynicism and self-absorption as characteristic of modern western populations, leaving people with a failure of meaning in their lives beyond the mundane and the hedonistic. He might well have added that the revolution in just the past decade that has put tablets and smartphones into millions of hands has accelerated the western retreat into the inner zone and the collapse of real-world civic or political engagement. Virtual worlds construct a new and potentially dangerous reality. In video games such as Call of Duty, youngsters now zap the Taliban electronically while having no understanding whatsoever of why small numbers of western soldiers are zapping the Taliban for real.

Furedi puts much of the blame for this situation, which he clearly regrets, on the feebleness of liberal democracy’s efforts to define itself. This was conspicuous in the interwar years, when fascism and communism seemed infinitely more exciting and exacting than old-fashioned liberalism. Furedi cites a meeting in Paris in 1937, called to form an international network that would define what the modern liberal stood for and save it from extinction. The particpants argued about neoliberalism, individualism, liberalism of the left – but could find no agreed definition.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when liberal politicians were confronted with youth rebellion (or, in Germany and Italy, hard-headed youth violence) and economic slowdown, it was even more evident that liberal democracy had a poorly articulated sense of its core values. Today’s liberals find it difficult to square the circle of extensive and obtrusive state control with the old-fashioned utilitarian liberalism inherited from John Stuart Mill. In the absence of that certainty, Furedi suggests that we have what Alvin Gouldner called a New Class (though class may not be the right word) that wants to control everything in a narrow, technocratic sense. We face government by a fussy, rule-obsessed administration rather than through a liberal and liberalising consensus.

This is certainly a thesis worth taking seriously. But it is not without some evident drawbacks. Though ostensibly rooted in the history of the century since the First World War, the argument is, in reality, historically abstract. There are obvious differences in the way western societies have responded to the challenges posed since 1918. Furedi’s account is too general to absorb these contrasts and, for all the references to a range of nations, his argument fits best with Britain and the US and their prolonged crisis about the core values for a pluralistic, apparently democratic state.

The abstraction extends to the populations under discussion, which, as he well knows, were and still are socially, ethnically and culturally diverse. It may well be the case that anxiety about meaning is the condition of the main body of the western intellectual elite but it is by no means clear that it extends to all sectors of the population, many of whom would not be pre­occupied with the way that identity is shaped by intellectual discourse or, in the case of authoritarian states, by the many manifestations of propaganda.

There is also the problem of how the “west” is defined, since its consumerist ambitions and policies of human-rights entitlement are exported globally, though not always with success. Does the search for meaning include Japan, with its strong links with global consumerism? Does it include Turkey, keen to become a European member but distrusted by many Europeans precisely because its “identity” is regarded as alien? The west in Furedi’s discourse is also something of an abstraction while the other, the “non-west” is surely important in shaping how western populations now view their own identity.

Indeed Furedi’s insistence that the current crisis is a domestic problem – caused by internal culture clashes about meaning and value – sidesteps the most important issue today, which is how the west will define itself in relation to the new power bases in China, India or Latin America. The attempt to export “western” democracy to the Middle East has been one long story of disasters; now the west will have to think about how new global players may try to export their culture to the west, an ironic reversal of the world a century ago.

Finally, what is not clear from Furedi’s argument is why a plurality of cultures or the absence of meaning should be a concern at all. The figure hanging over all this discussion is the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (oddly absent from this account), whose challenge to the bourgeois values and Christian hypocrisy of his age still informs intellectual life today. Shared values and political consensus can be stifling and coercive. If millions of Americans believe in creationism and millions do not, this does not mean that liberal consensus is doomed. It simply means that in a democracy where tolerance (the keystone of Mill’s liberalism) is a central value, there ought to be real differences.

It is worth reflecting on what might have been if the First World War had not happened and western certainty and self-assertion had remained unchallenged. A perennial uncertainty and self-awareness may not have been such a bad legacy after all.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilisation, 1919-1939” (Penguin, £16.99)

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood